Developing trainees is crucial for the future

RECRUIT the best, then nurture them, says Philip Rodney

Recruit the best legal talent and then to nurture and develop it. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

A SUCCESSFUL business puts a high value on recruiting, developing and retaining its trainees. It also listens to them.

It is very easy when you have been in a firm for a long time to think you have a monopoly on wisdom. New recruits are looking at a different world in a different way and it’s vital to harness their new ideas and fresh thinking.

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When I was a legal trainee many years ago, the approach was very different. Trainees were often seen as photocopying fodder and kept busy running errands while the experienced lawyers did the “real” work.

That philosophy has changed immeasurably. We are currently in the middle of university law fairs, where firms take the opportunity to identify new talent. The training on offer is much more structured, high-quality and hands-on nowadays and the calibre of trainees is very high.

Burness Paull is working back to identify that fresh talent as early as possible. Next year, we are introducing spring insight days, targeted at second year law students, to bring them into the firm and give them an idea of what to expect if they decide to join us in the future.

After third year, we take in students on a very structured summer placement programme, which is a pathway to a traineeship for the brightest law students.

These pre-traineeship programmes allow us to show students what our firm is all about – not just what we do, but how we go about it and the culture of the firm.

I remember as a young lawyer at Alexander Stone (a firm which merged with Burness in 1998) learning from senior partner, Alfie Phillips.

He was a brilliant lawyer and working with him was like being the sorcerer’s apprentice. He was someone who had a very genuine interest in nurturing the next generation of lawyers – and developing their careers rather than just seeing them as a source of cheap labour.

That’s the philosophy I brought with me when I became chairman of Burness – and now Burness Paull; that it is absolutely crucial to make the investment in people who will be the next generation of the business.

A lot of thought goes into our training. It is carefully structured to ensure that someone coming into our team can develop to their full potential.

We are a business that wants to be at the very top of the market and that means constantly bringing through great talent.

We don’t shut our trainees away. Very early on, they are exposed to Burness Paull’s strategy and culture, working in teams with our senior people and encouraged to look at global opportunities. We are proud to be based in Scotland (we have almost 500 people here) but we are a global business, working in around 60 jurisdictions. Our trainees are very much encouraged to embrace that global culture.

A former managing partner in one Scottish firm once said to me that they were happy to move on lawyers as they developed – and to replace them with others at a lower cost. We take the opposite approach. Our philosophy is that organic growth in business is about nurturing people and watching them grow; culturally we are inclusive, not hierarchical and we want people to come here for a career, not for a job.

When I interview new recruits, I always look for two things – a passion for something (not necessarily the law) and an area where they know more than me.

I always want trainees to bring in new ideas and fresh thinking, to teach things to my contemporaries and I – because we have been in the business a long time and sometimes do not see it with fresh eyes.

But it’s not just about new ideas, it’s about relationships at the client level – law graduates connect with their peers, making contacts and developing an understanding of the next generation of our clients’ business. That’s really important.

Burness Paull currently has more than 40 trainees and our retention rates are very high. We have launched a new graduate website, which includes ‘day in the life’ blogs by our trainees.

Several of our partners started with the firm as trainees and we want to use them as examples of what our new recruits can achieve.

Our philosophy is to put trainees at the heart of what we do from day one – to recruit the best legal talent and then to nurture and develop it to secure the long-term health of our business.

• Philip Rodney is chairman of Burness Paull,